AFTER what seemed like forever, things are finally starting to look up for Blackwater.
An expansion team that spent its first two PBA seasons in the doldrums is quietly optimistic that it has finally put together a lineup that could hold its own against the league heavyweights beginning in the Philippine Cup.
"We have the tools now," said Blackwater owner Dioceldo Sy, who has endured criticism over the past two seasons while his team struggled to put up a competitive team.
Much of that new-found confidence comes from the arrival of Mac Belo and Ael Banal, two youngsters who, since arriving for training camp, have done everything to prove that Blackwater didn't make a mistake in taking them with top picks in the two-fold rookie draft.
The word from the Blackwater offseason camp? Belo and Banal are the real deal.
Blackwater coach Leo Isaac was careful not to raise expectations even after Blackwater beat newly crowned Governors Cup champion Ginebra in a tune-up game, but admitted that his lineup has changed for the better after the raft of movements done in the offseason.
"Dati, hindi kami makabuo ng dalawang magandang teams sa practice," said Isaac. "Ngayon meron na."
Blackwater, ridiculed in the past for some questionable deals, made another bold move in the offseason when it traded its best scoring option, Carlo Lastimosa, to NLEX for James Forrester.
While the deal has raised questions, Forrester's impressive play with Blackwater - topped off by his 16-point outing in Blackwater's 103-100 win over Ginebra in Batangas last November 13 - has offered hope that it may not be a bad deal afterall.
Another late recruit, Dylan Ababou, is also expected to shine for Blackwater after years the former Gilas cadet spent languishing on the benches of Ginebra and TNT.
The only dampener for Blackwater is the ACL injury on JP Erram that will keep the vastly improved center out at least until the tailend of the all-Filipino conference, depriving the Elite of what would've been a solid frontline.
But for now, Isaac is counting on Art Dela Cruz, Kyle Pascual and Belo to hold the fort - and make Blackwater respectable enough down low.
Blackwater's first test comes on Wednesday when it makes its season debut against Phoenix and Isaac - rightfully so - has reserved judgment on his rejigged side until after the match.
"Hanggat hindi natin nakikita sa actual na game 'yan, hindi natin masasabi kung nag-improve nga kami," said the former Ginebra guard.
Still, there's no question the dark days are bound to be over for Blackwater.